One of the Trees of Light has Fallen

I am down at BMG for the first time in ages. The endless rain has gone, and morning light has been restored. Magpies’ song lifts my spirit so. 

One of the trees that was part of the intimate community that framed my celebration of morning light has fallen. The soil has been so saturated its roots no longer had solid purchase. It has gently, and extremely, leaned northward. 

Its life would, I imagine, continue. But the Council has put an ominous cordon of red and white tape across the mown parkland side. The tape also has the word “DANGER” in black repeatedly stenciled on it. There may be peril to small unaccompanied children and blind folk, but I am still in two minds about the declaration of hazard. Only a tiny portion of the base of the tree may constitute a risk – and that could be managed. 

The tree could live out its span with this modest leaning disability, but I fear it will be euthanased with a chainsaw in the name of public safety, and an unconscious aesthetic bias against leaning trees.

I have a moment of luminous silence, whose spell is finally broken by a magpie’s song – a last post. The day must go on – and so must I.

Human 3.0?

First posted on August 30, 2021

The strange conceit of Humanity 2.0

Back on 25 September 2011, The Guardian’s Ian Tucker interviewed Steve Fuller [who holds the Auguste Comte chair in social epistemology in Warwick University’s Department of Sociology] about his new book, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human, Past, Present and Future.

Here’s a quick definition of Humanity 2.0 from the article:

Humanity 2.0 is an understanding of the human condition that no longer takes the “normal human body” as given. On the one hand, we’re learning more about our continuity with the rest of nature – in terms of the ecology, genetic make-up, evolutionary history. On this basis, it’s easy to conclude that being “human” is overrated. But on the other hand, we’re also learning more about how to enhance the capacities that have traditionally marked us off from the rest of nature. Computers come to mind most readily in their capacity to amplify and extend ourselves. Humanity 2.0 is about dealing with this tension.

This is a challenging notion that reflects a particular idea of what it means to be human. Note “the capacities that have traditionally marked us off from the rest of nature.”

A Forbes article by Neil Sahota from 1 October 2018 has the title Human 2.0 Is Coming Faster Than You Think. Will You Evolve With The Times?opens with:

“Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity,” author, computer scientist, and inventor Ray Kurzweil once said. “We created them to extend ourselves, and that is what is unique about human beings.” In the past few years, there has been considerable discussion around the idea we are slowly merging with our technology, that we are becoming transhuman, with updated abilities, including enhanced intelligence, strength, and awareness. 

Note: “what is unique about human beings.”

There is a common theme here – humans are special and separate from Nature. What does this mean about how we should conduct ourselves? There are options – how should we choose?

Here our human identity is no more than our physical being. Kurzweil is a techno-romanticist in my view. Saying that humans created machines “to extend ourselves” reflects an appalling lack of insight into the impact of machines – which has been [in modern times] to displace humans from labour processes. Machines have come about by harnessing science in the pursuit of benefit – usually profit by a social elite. Other benefits were incidental.

It is certainly true that humans have invented devices that overcome challenges, and these have often benefited a community with little to no enduring downsides. But the history of human machine making also includes devices that have delivered misery and mayhem – upon humans, animals, and the natural world. That has been considered price worth paying – but by those exacting the cost, not those paying the price.

The twin passions for scientific inquiry and technological innovation have been married to an economic system more focused on benefit to the few than upon extending the welfare of humans in general [or beyond].

The Fuller article goes on to assert that: We need to be always reminding ourselves that we have always been enhancing ourselves, that science has always been enhancing the human condition, that we have been trusting machines over our own bodies for at least 300-400 years now. We’ve already broken through that barrier – we do live in a very artificial world. Even though the stuff on the horizon may amplify our powers tremendously, it is nevertheless part of the same process. It is a step change but it’s the same story, the story of scientific progress.

The idea of “a very artificial world” bothers me. If humanity is part of nature, we can assert that we have modified the world to such a degree that our handiwork is the critical attribute of the environment we live in. But that’s not ‘artificial’ – at least that’s not a good way to think about it. ‘Anthropocentric’ would be a better way. Nature expresses through humans too.

Fuller seems to sum up his point of view in his idea that “Humanity 2.0 is less about the power of new technologies than a state of mind in which we see our lives fulfilled in such things.” The notion that we see our lives fulfilled in new technologies seems to be devoid of something that should be fundamental to our sense of what it is to be human.

Sahota walks down the same path. He says: “In the past few years, there has been considerable discussion around the idea we are slowly merging with our technology, that we are becoming transhuman, with updated abilities, including enhanced intelligence, strength, and awareness.” He sums up his vision with: “Are we staring down the gulf at “Human 2.0?””

Tech is Just Tech

We are not. I can’t imagine that a finely crafted flint tool is less precious than an iPhone. One is a tool critical to human welfare. The other is not.  Indeed, any of the ‘tech’ that was fundamental to survival of our distant ancestors might have excited a powerful sense connection. Fire was so essential social rules and even rituals were crafted to ensure that it was treated with the respect, if not reverence, that matched its purpose.  Surely here was a boundary between Humanity 1.0 and 2.0 – a Promethean demarcation?

Tech can be used to extend our innate capacity, obviously, but it has been doing that for millennia. Among indigenous Australians the woomera enhanced the range of a spear.

Humans will also adopt and adapt technology developed elsewhere for advantage; and have been doing so for millennia. Indigenous Australians have embraced the rifle as tool to replace the spear. The industrial revolution and the post-industrial tech boom have lifted the power of human artifice to new levels – but we have gone way beyond critical tools for survival into the realm of indulgence.

There is a natural relationship between machines/tech and humans. But it is nothing like the Humanity 2.0 advocates imagine. The fusion of human and machine is not a fulfilment of an innate potential. Fuller said his book is about dealing with the tension generated by what we are learning about our place in nature and our potential with tech. I don’t think “tension” is the right word. Its more “trauma” occasioned by a failure to develop and promulgate a decent moral code and philosophical outlook. If there is a “tension” it concerns a false and misguided hope.

Magical Thinking

As we continue transform our life-worlds our technology increasingly reflects no necessity for physical – rather an analogue of the magical or spiritual. In fact, it does seem at times that what we are witnessing is a materialist mentality aspiring to re-spiritualise the human realm with self-moving and ‘intelligent’ devices. One could see that the ultimate tech dream is to replace a ‘non-existent God’ with one crafted from human endeavour – a vast embracing and parenting ‘internet of things’. It is an effort to re-animate the human reality that has been stripped of its spirits by immature thinking and presumptuous haste at arriving at conclusions.

The passion of transhumanism is to enable ‘immortality’ by transferring human consciousness into a more durable medium than the physical body.

This is magic wrought by intellect alone – an effort to replace what it has rejected, discarded, and abandoned as meaningless and unreal.

Operator Error

While we have invested more and more in improving our technology, we have invested far less in improving the human user. If the user is debased, then the use to which even the most sophisticated devices will be put will also be debased.

Technology does not ennoble or extend us. Only we are capable of doing that. The Humanity 2.0 community has either lost touch with, or never really been in touch with, the human spirit – as more than the animating force of our physical being. The dominance of materialism has been a profound disservice.

Our governments obediently endorse the passion for STEM subjects in our universities with no sense of the imbalance. We can have devices that magnify our desires and actions. But the increasing our capacity for self-governance and self-awareness to help us be more aware of those desires and actions is not supported to the same degree.

There’s a reason for this. Tech deals with how. Moral considerations introduce the problem of why and whether, and this carries the risk of saying “No” to technological innovations and solutions. This might bring about a demand that the determining measure of benefit should not reside with those who profit from making and distributing. Rather it belongs to the shared community of lives impacted in the chain of development, production, sale and use of any device.

Introducing Human 3.0

I want to suggest that we step over Humanity 2.0 as a dizzy conceit and delusion – a failure – and go straight to Human 3.0.

This is the rebalancing of human enterprise by restoring the spiritual and moral dimension to our equations concerning benefit. This is not an opposition to tech, just the addition of a corrective that is implicit in our decision-making from the outset.

Inclusive Design is an approach that seeks to include the spectrum of being human when designing a thing – rather than modelling all upon an ideal of a fully capable person of average attributes [who does not exist].

Holistic Design expands the embrace of Inclusive Design to cover more than the human – the vast realm of the other-than-human.

This would place technological development and its application in a context governed by an acknowledgement that human self-interest is not the final arbiter of human conduct.

At present the worse of human impulses have been unleashed by the best of our technology in ways unprecedented in known history. The constraints upon those less than noble impulses are weak – as if the logic for such is uncertain. The rallying cry of freedom has no refrain of duty or obligation.

The greatest tech advances in the past few decades have relied upon those with little restraint, or high purpose, for growth. All should benefit from technological advances, but not at the cost of manners and civil conduct.

Human 3.0 is an effort to evolve a conception of being human in what is fundamentally a new age framed by two considerations:

  1. What future human ingenuity may devise – and what we may encounter.
  2. What restorations and reparations are necessary to heal the wounds wrought by our past unbalanced ingenuity upon the lives of this planet.

We can go forward unfettered by what we will not/dare not acknowledge only if we look back the same degree we look forward. If we can do that, we may be able to say we have grown up as a member of our species. In a sense Human 3.0 is about taking the first steps as a spiritual adult.

This is not a suggestion to form a movement. Rather Human 3.0 is a personal assertion of commitment to restoring balance. Part of doing so is the re-imagining of the spiritual and the moral.

Update

Since writing this I have encountered three fascinating ideas. The first is in Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual. The second is Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The third is a series of books on the psychology of bias and thinking – Daniel Kahneman, John A. List and Mahzarin R Banaji & Anthony G Greenwald are my main sources at the moment.

Here’s a bold summation, which is at a tentative stage. We humans are evolving via what we presently understand as individuality from a past state that was group-based, but largely unconscious and shaped by instincts and emotions toward another group-based state that is shaped by higher levels of self-awareness and ‘spiritual’ ideas and ideals. Individualism is not an end state. Religion, which has been the guiding principle in the earlier group-based state, has suffered in this present transitional phase for two reasons.

First, it badly straddles the two stages, and muddles the elements of both into a chaos of emotions and the illusion of rational thought. Second, the transition through individualism has excited an over focus on left brain activity – which is mistaken for ‘reason’, rather than self-centred utility.

Contemporary psychological research makes it pretty clear that humans are dominated by instincts and emotions – and we are not very good at thinking. We use the word ‘reason’ to denote what is essentially intellectualism. In the esoteric tradition there is a clear distinction made between the ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ minds – one tapping into instinct and emotion and the other into what we might call soul awareness. 

The substantial abandonment of religion from The Enlightenment period on led to the abandoning of language (and ideas) that could make the necessary distinction.

The fascination with tech reflects the transitional phase we are in. It is post-biological, but still doing the job at an instinctual and emotional level – and at the level of self-centred utility. Materialistic science is becoming the new metaphysics and moral philosophy. It wants to create an analogue of an animated and intelligent reality for humans to live in. There is no comfort with any spirituality at this stage – in terms of a wider intellectual discourse. Science has not yet advanced beyond materialism, and that is at least a century away, or longer, in terms of there being a significant evolutionary step.

The idea of Human 3.0 is aspirational. But I think we can get a decent feel for what it means. Tech isn’t the post-biological state to be yearned for. That’s just substitution for materialists who can’t imagine anything else. Overcoming the domination of instincts and emotions in framing our sense of individuated being is our biggest challenge. That can be done only through intentional action. It must also be beyond the focus on self-centred left-brain dominated utility and toward a holistic affirmation of the passion even materialists share – an animated and intelligent reality.

The Travails of Transition

Introduction

One of the things that has been intriguing me is how there is a broad-based transition away from Christianity to a wider sense of the spiritual and sacred – which includes secular thought as well. This move is more than just disappointment with Christianity. It is informed by social, political, and scientific developments as well.

We are in the habit of seeing things in terms of contested domains – science v religion – as well as distinct fields of thought – religion, psychology, physics, politics and so on. In fact, the contestation is artificial, and the distinctions are contextual. 

Back in 1997 Stephen Jay Gould attempted to rethink the science v religion context by asserting that they were, in fact, non-overlapping magisterial. Gould was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.

This is what Wikipedia says about the idea: …each represent different areas of inquiry, fact vs. values, so there is a difference between the “nets” over which they have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority”, and the two domains do not overlap

This is a common, and mistaken, view of both fields. What Gould may have more usefully done would have been to observe that in each magisterium there is dogma, habit, politics and ambition. Science has a better reputation because it does have an evolutionary impulse – knowledge grows and changes.

In fact, far from non-overlapping, they sit perfectly well together. What is missed by Gould is that the materialism, beloved of many scientists is a ‘metaphysical assumption’ – a guess. In essence a belief based on a faith that the guess is right.

I want to be fair to Gould. He had good intent here, but his knowledge of religion is typical of scientists – superficial. He probably meant that even religious scientists, of whom there have always been many – in the majority by far to begin with – can seem to keep their faith and their science separate. But, in fact, this is a superficial interpretation. They can certainly keep separate the things that are irrelevant to either. But there’s a vital area that always overlaps – how questions are framed, asked, and how data is interpreted. This is the theme of this essay.

What is the Question?

Early on, what we call Science was called Natural Philosophy. Science, as we now understand it, has been shaped by the Industrial Revolution in the service of ‘resources’, and the stuff we turned them into. Utility, not curiosity, ruled.

Before that, Natural Philosophers gazed upon the ‘handiwork of God’, and imagined they’d find evidence of God’s existence. That didn’t happen, and, with the advent of the lens, it still didn’t happen. As a result, some concluded that the absence of evidence was a demonstration of absence. Nature was still profoundly fascinating, and whether God existed or not became unimportant to the question about the nature of a subject of inquiry.

But whether the subject of inquiry is a thing, or a being, is another matter. The objectification of nature as a resource to be exploited by humans. This is from 1:28 Genesis:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’

But this has been translated from Hebrew and here is an interesting passage from iscast.org:

The key words are the Hebrew redeth and kabash which can mean ‘subjugate’ and ‘subdue,’ but only if taken by themselves. The words have a range of meanings, just as ‘vessel’ in English can have more than one meaning, i.e.: cup or ship. Thus, redeth can vary in meaning from ‘tread underfoot’, ‘subjugate’, ‘to rule’ or ‘to rule, guard and serve,’ and kabash can vary from ‘beat into submission’, ‘subdue’ through ‘to tame’ or ‘control carefully’. Taken out of context any meaning can be assigned and used as a pretext to prove whatever one likes.

So, the fault is not religion per se, but some religious who, through ignorance or intent, fashioned a warrant to plunder and despoil. And science, largely disdainful of religion, was obedient to those who saw the chance to plunder and profit as coming from God. The absence of any moral responsibility was divinely ordained.

Would the questions asked by science have been different in a different religious culture? How do we guard and control, rather than how do we exploit?

Is Religion a Science, Is Science a Religion?

My Oxford dictionary app says that religion is the “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” The same app says that science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

Let’s play with these definitions and switch them around, with some minor changes.

  • Science is belief in and [inquiry into] a superhuman controlling power.
  • Religion is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural [and supernatural] world[s] through observation and experiment.”

Some readers may baulk at this effort if they are accustomed to thinking of religion in terms of theology and dogma – as informed by their knowledge of Christianity. Here the history of Islam may be a better guide.

We must also escape the PR allure of science that paints it as a relentlessly rational affair. In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Thomas Khun observed that sometimes changes in thinking comes about only when adherents die. In short, science is not free from entrenched dogma, and neither is it free from a secular version of metaphysics.

Galileo (1564 to 1642) is science’s pin up boy for religious persecution. True he annoyed the Catholic church, but he was put under house arrest, essentially for being a mouthy git. On the other hand, Giordano Bruno (1548 to 1600) was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, cosmological theorist, and Hermetic occultist was burned alive as an “obstinate heretic”. Bruno is no martyr for science because of his hermetic beliefs, even though it could have been his cosmological beliefs that were the problem.

Science is a bit like this. Newton (1643 to 1727) was not only “widely recognised that’s one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time and among the most influential scientists” (Wikipedia) but his list of skills has only comparatively recently been shown completely – “mathematician, physicist, astronomer, alchemist, theologian.”(Wikipedia). 40 years ago, you would not have found “alchemist, theologian” listed in any account of his life produced, or approved, by the scientific community. The fact that Newton was spiritual/religious was a source of embarrassment.

Newton evidently didn’t let his spiritual perspective interfere with his science. In fact: The two traditions of natural philosophy, the mechanical and the Hermetic, antithetical though they appear, continued to influence his thought and in their tension supplied the fundamental theme for of his scientific career.(Britannica.com)

With both Bruno and Newton, Hermetic philosophy seems to be the sticking point for materialistic science, despite the fact that it didn’t seem to impair (and may even have enhanced) the intellectual attainments of either Natural Philosopher.

Essentially religion and science perform the same role – making sense of what is, and helping humans live as well as they can. Our view of religion has been distorted by the personalised and interventionist god of the Abrahamic tradition. Scientists might rightly observe that there is no empirical evidence such a god exists. Individual experience of ‘supernatural’ events is not dependent on belief or faith. In other traditions the divine is seen as capricious, and even dangerous.

Belief in gods has not impeded prodigious feats of intellectual attainment, as is seen with the Egyptians, Sumerians, Aztecs, and Indians, just to name a few. The ancient Egyptians, considered by some to be the most religious of people, left us the Great Pyramid, which still astonishes us as a feat of engineering and construction.

Essentially, aside from the Catholic church’s assault on free thinking scientific and Hermetic thinkers, there is really no fundamental disjuncture between science and religion. Inquiry into the ways of gods probably gave us the science we have now.

If we can see science and religion as the yin and yang of human consciousness – constantly overlapping and intersecting – we can progress to the next step.

Where to From Here?

We are seeing signs. Quantum science has generated serious intellectual conversations about whether consciousness is the foundation of reality. I recently listened to Great Courses audiobook Exploring Metaphysics. It was essentially metaphysics for materialists, and it was a very interesting survey of the fact that metaphysics is now a thing for materialists – and not just woo nonsense for the gullible.

We are moving toward a reconciliation of science and religion. To be fair, we are a probably a century away from celebrating any renewal of vows. But given it has taken a century for quantum physics to be accepted as actual science, that’s not unreasonable. We have a lot of reimaging of religion to do – and that’s barely under way.

Dean Radin’s 2018 book, Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science and the Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe is a decent effort making progress. Radin is a serious scientific psi researcher who decided to finally explore the traditions that support and validates psi in the ‘real world’. He had to shift his position, as a consequence.

Progress will be slow because this is an evolution of collective consciousness. There will be out-there pioneers and entrenched stick-in-the-mud traditionalists whose death maybe the only way their influence is diminished. Neither science nor religion are pure fields of thought. Each has its culture and traditions, as well as its power structures and interests. Each has its conceits, myths, and bullshit.

But we will get there because this is an evolutionary imperative

Conclusion

On a personal level I am living through an exciting period of transition. Such periods have come and gone in recent centuries – at least there have been eruptions that have stood out against the background and steady change that has been going on for the past 2000 years or so – maybe longer.

My period relates to an increased publication of esoteric books in the 1970s – opening up access to hard-to-get material. This led into a steady expansion of the Internet from the early 2000s and to the explosion of social media. On the one hand it is a riot of content of widely varied quality. On the other it feeds a profound hunger for deeper insight.

The New Age movement, which is what filled my sails, has touched deep and shallow urges. It is routinely ridiculed for its seemingly facile ‘therapy culture’ practised by flagrantly inept devotees. But a rising tide lifts the shabby dinghies and dugout canoes as well as the super yachts.

The way ahead is chaotic. There’s a cacophony of hope, and the more people respond, the more varied will be the responses catering to the that hope – and sometimes exploiting it. If we focus on own response to our needs, and not attend excessively to how others are meeting theirs, we will come to understand that this not a competition, but a collaboration. We all in this evolutionary in transitional phase together.

A Reflection on Still Aspiring

Introduction

A friend has challenged me on my use of “aspiring” in the title of this blog. It is worthwhile revisiting my rationale. I am curious to see if my position has evolved.

The False Magic of Declaring an Identity

I replied to my friend in an email, saying, in part: This is nowhere better observed in that the many who call themselves ‘Christians’ think they do good when they do good, when in fact they often do harm. To be ‘Christian’ in its perfect form is to act in imitation of Christ – ergo, for me the true, and modest adherents are ‘aspiring Christians’. In the same vein I insist on being an aspiring animist – still mindful that I have not yet attained the power to do good in a sustained way.

My friend was offering a quote from Sir Francis Bacon – “Power to do good is the true and lawful end of aspiring” It is an alluring sentiment, whose sense I do not dispute. Bacon is a popular source of quotes, so I found this one to reinforce my case: “There is a difference between happiness and wisdom: he that thinks himself the happiest man is really so; but he that thinks himself the wisest is generally the greatest fool.”

Wisdom is something we can aspire to, but to think oneself as wise is a folly, and a conceit.

In my reply email I cited Christians simply because I know them well. Naming oneself as a Christian does not magically make one Christian. In fact, naming oneself anything – good, wise, kind – has the same ineffectuality at transferring the virtue to one’s character – or triggering its expression from some latent or dormant internal source.

For me, calling myself an Animist would not make my outlook and habits of mind and heart animistic. The reminder that this is the case is important to me.

I do acknowledge that those less prone to pedantry than I would baulk at adding a qualifier to a description of their philosophical and moral outlook. That’s perfectly fine, if they can maintain a discipline of modestly acknowledging their aspirational status, so long as it pertains, of course.

“Clothes Make the Man”

This is a famous quote about which I quote comments from a blog:

The proverb as it is recorded in Latin by Erasmus (Adagia 3.1.60) is: “vestis virum facit” meaning “clothes make the man.” In the Adagia, Erasmus quotes Quintilian’s (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) work, Institutions (orat. 8 pr. 20): “To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority.” Quintilian is, in turn, citing the work of Homer who wrote his epics about 7 or 8 B.C. In the Odyssey (6.29–30, 242–3, 236–7), the key lines are: “From these things, you may be sure, men get a good report” and “At first I thought his [Ulysses] appearance was unseemly, but now he has the air of the gods who dwell in the wide heaven.” Thus the impact of making a good impression by way of fine threads and bling was not lost on the great classic writers.

Not to be one-upped by classical writers, Shakespeare (who wore his fine Elizabethan white ruff with great pride and dignity) weighed in on the matter through Polonius: “The apparel oft proclaims the man” (The Tragedy of Hamlet, written c. 1600).

We know scoundrelsdisguise themselves in fine attire, uniforms, and white coats as much as by titles and signals of asserted virtue. The very worst is the cleric with a predisposition to sexually assault children. By attire, by title, and by belonging to a faith, the innocents are fooled and duped and injured.                

A Badge of Identity

Over the years I have been involved with people who have identified themselves as ‘priests’ or ‘priestesses’, or as ‘magicians’ or ‘witches’. Many have been devoted to their path. But the need to identify as such, unless it is a formal role, suggests that perhaps the identity means more than the practice, and its philosophy. Some were certainly more devoted to the identity. They saw the trappings and paraphernalia of magic more as supporting their sense of status – than the means to do what their claims to practice suggested.

We all have identities – names we call ourselves to convey something about ourselves. Sometimes that identity is absolute – I am Australian. Sometimes it infers no sense of competence, let alone expertise. Saying one is a Sydney Swans supporter does not carry any implicit import, well most of the time. While saying one is a hairdresser may infer no mastery, there is an expectation of competence, nevertheless. This is why we find qualifying terms like ‘trainee’ or ‘apprentice’ being applied. We distinguish between the novice and the competent.

There is something else in identifying as a Christian (or any other faith) or an Atheist, or an Animist. In part, there is the connection with a set of ideas, or beliefs. There is also a signal about values (except, maybe, in the case of an Atheist) arising from those ideas and beliefs. My experience is that the majority of Christians and Animists I have known are ‘trainee’ Christians and ‘trainee’ Animists. That is to say that, while they may have a certain expertise in the ideas or beliefs of their particular persuasion, they are not adept at expressing its values at a high level. 

Conclusion

I struggle to consistently live the values of my understanding of Animism. This is because I had been conditioned to be a materialist for over 40 years before I came across the idea of animism. What I live is a hybrid Materialism/Animism – a spectrum that is slowly moving toward the Animism end.

In a sense, my insistence on keeping the ‘aspiring’ qualifier is in the recognition that it is like a kind of portable personal confessional in which I can reflect on my lapsing back into materialistic thought – which is often – and I am grateful when I catch myself doing so.

At one stage I had idly thought of setting up a group called Materialists Anonymous (MA). Whether we are ‘conditioned’ or ‘addicted’, materialistic thinking dominates us as we seek to escape its dominion.

I wonder if my friend would be happier if I called myself a ‘Trainee Animist’.

A final thought is that ‘Animist’ is an imperfect word. I think we are evolving to a post-materialist consciousness that is more than Animism. Some alternative words have been proposed, but they are, for me, excessively intellectual, and lack personal sense that Animism has.

I am, in fact, an Aspiring (Post-Materialist/) Animist. I have a sense of the goal. Getting there is not just about reframing thought and language; but enlarging the frame of empathy and identity.

Thankfulness

Introduction

I am listening to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is an indigenous American woman who, as a botanist and ecologist, fuses traditional indigenous knowledge with science to create a powerful perspective.

The book tells stories of her life – and her deep connection with the natural world – with a dual voice. It’s in no hurry. So, its relaxing, while delivering a very potent message.

This is epitomised in the Thanksgiving Address, which she recites and discusses.

The Address

This is from the website – https://danceforallpeople.com/haudenosaunee-thanksgiving-address/

The Thanksgiving Address (the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen) is the central prayer and invocation for the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). It reflects their relationship of giving thanks for life and the world around them. The Haudenosaunee open and close every social and religious meeting with the Thanksgiving Address. 

It is also said as a daily sunrise prayer, and is an ancient message of peace and appreciation of Mother Earth and her inhabitants. The children learn that, according to Native American tradition, people everywhere are embraced as family. Our diversity, like all wonders of Nature, is truly a gift for which we are thankful.

In her book, Kimmerer affirms that the Haudenosaunee intended that the address be shared widely. The above link takes you to the full Address – but I had added it to the end of this essay as well.

To me, sharing it also means adapting it to suit the symbols and images of place and culture. I am sensitive to cultural appropriation – the mere adoption of the product of a culture and the imitation of it. It’s what people do when they imagine that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The Address is a gift to be shared. It is from the heart. It is the raw material of wisdom and connection partly worked to a good form, but not perfected for all recipients.

The Need to Recreate

Recently there was a story of a Catholic priest who said, “We baptise” and not “I baptise” in baptismal ceremonies over many years. Church authorities have, apparently, declared that the failure to say the words exactly as prescribed renders all the ceremonies invalid, null. While a faith certainly has the freedom to set rules about how ceremonies are performed, I feel obliged to observe that such an invalidation is effective only in the context of faith rules, not in any spiritual sense.

A baptism has questionable value to a child on any rational level. But it matters greatly to parents, god parents and the priest. The Church’s insistence on “I baptise” suggests the priest alone possesses an authority to perform the ceremony. Again, while it is the right of a faith to believe, and assert this, it is simply not true that the priest alone has that ability.

In this case, the love of the parents for the child carries a far greater energy to perform such a ceremony. The priest is merely an agent acting on the parent’s behalf. The errant priest is right. “We baptise” is not only truer; it is more potent.

A quick note. Being ordained as a priest or minister is an administrative act. So is being ‘initiated’ into an occult group or a wiccan coven – for the most part. In many indigenous traditions a ‘shaman’ or priest is ‘chosen by spirit’ – and any act or ordaining or initiating involving humans is a cooperative affair.

Being ordained or initiated, of itself, means nothing beyond the belief system’s culture and traditions. But it becomes a conceit for the many who imagine it has transformed them in some fundamental way. There is no magical transference of power or authority outside that culture and tradition. Power comes from spirit, and it is given, or shared, regardless of human belief.

Why is This Important?

The Thanksgiving Address is a gift from the Haudenosaunee to us all. But it is of diminished value if all we do is recite it as if its power lies in its words alone. 

We must decide whether the gift is the form, or the quality of the spirit the words carry from the speaker’s lips, and the hearers’ hearts. Are the words the gift wrapping or the gift?

If the Thanksgiving Address moves you as it is, imagine how much more potent it would be if those ideas are framed in images and symbols that resonate deeply with you – with your culture, with the place where you live.

Conclusion

The Thanksgiving Address is an intimate expression. It must be personal. It must come from inside, as it does for the Haudenosaunee, who crafted it according to their ways. If you accept the gift, to honour it, you must make it your own.

That will take time, and deep reflection. I will be making it my own in the coming weeks. I am not impatient. I must prepare, and the time must be right.

Braiding Sweetgrass is a book of immense beauty and power. It’s in ebook and audiobook formats, so there’s no excuse for not finding what works best for you.

Because we are impatient and linear beings, I have included the whole of the Thanksgiving Address below.

Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty and responsibility to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give our greetings and our thanks to one another as people.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send our greetings and our thanks.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms — waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send our greetings and our thanks to the spirit of Water.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and our thanks.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

Now we turn toward the Plants. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give our thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life continue for many generations to come.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them our greetings and our thanks.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

Now we turn to all the Medicine plants of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind we send our greetings and our thanks to the Medicines, and to the keepers of the Medicines.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We gather our minds together to send our greetings and our thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and we pray that this will always be so.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and our thanks to the Tree life.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds — from the smallest to the largest — we send our joyful greetings and our thanks.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and our thanks to the Four Winds.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers, the Thunders live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We are thankful that they keep those evil things made by Okwiseres underground. We bring our minds together as one to send our greetings and our thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunders.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We now send our greetings and our thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send our greetings and our thanks to our Brother, the Sun.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night‐time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send our greetings and our thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We give our thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewels. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send our greetings and our thanks for the Stars.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We gather our minds together to consider the Wisdom Keepers who have come to help the people throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live. With one mind, we send our greetings and our thanks to these caring teachers.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, Shonkwaia’tîson, and send our greetings and our thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it is not our intention to leave anything out. If something has been forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send their greetings and their thanks in their own way.

AND NOW OUR MINDS ARE ONE

 

The Spirit of Place

Introduction

Less than 5 minutes drive from where I live is a park I have gone to in the early mornings for a few years. It has a parking area that faces north, and the eastern end has been my go-to place. There’s something about that area that entrances me.

There’s nothing spectacular or obvious. In fact, one morning the rising sun filtered through mist to create an affect that let me create one of my favourite photos. To take it on my iPhone I had to wait for a guy with a flash camera – a digital SLR – to move out of the way. What he saw, I do not know, but it clearly wasn’t what I saw. He moved on without raising his camera.

A foggy forest with trees

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Developing soft eyes

I have had a passion for photography since my teens, but I never took the straight path that delighted in crisp and technically perfected images. I loved the effect of light, and I developed a kind of painterly passion – expressionistic – rather than a love of the technical potential of the device. For a long time, I relied upon a basic point and shoot Kodak, and commercial processing. I couldn’t crop images until digital came a long, so I had to learn to see the finished image in my crappy little camera.

I bought a Canon SLR in the mid 1990s. It was my second. The first, a Minolta SRT 101, I bought in 1968, and it was stolen a few years later. So, the Canon was an act of indulgence, as modest as it was.

In 1999 I enrolled in a Social Ecology course through the University of Western Sydney. One of the units was A Sense of Place. This involved selecting a place and returning to it for at least an hour for each day for a week or two. I have forgotten the details now. I had to keep a diary and deliver 5,000-word report. With the permission of course convenor I produced a 30,000-word report and a portfolio of poems and photos.

My place was Broadwater Beach, north of Evans Head on the far north coast of New South Wales. The beach stretched south to Evans Head. It was not an area that was safe for swimming, so mostly fishers went there. It had a quality of wildness that domesticated beaches lacked. I went there often to fish. On the rare occasions I could see another person I felt crowded.

I picked an area of around 100 metres to limit any temptation to roam too far. My intent was to make a photographic diary, but 2 things happened. The first was that I got bored quickly, and the second was that a beach and sand dunes do not make for good photographs. I began to rue my choice of place. But, I chose to stick it out – even if my report would be about being bored and not able to take interesting photos. I had to be loyal to my original intent and see it through.

Broadwater Beach is home to what is called ‘coffee rock’. It’s a mixture of mineral sands and organic matter which produces a hard but friable feature that looks like compacted coffee grounds. Portions of the area I had selected featured areas of this ‘coffee rock’ eroded by wave action. I decided to photograph detail in the desperate hope of producing some images that were interesting. Apart from a few possibles, it was a forlorn expectation. 

But what it did do was transformative. It shifted my gaze from the beachscape to particular features and, quite suddenly, I was seeing extraordinary things under my feet. What was a visual desert became a bounty of the extraordinary. I changed the pattern of my visits – arriving just before sun up, and at the last few hours of daylight. 

Ground water seeped through the dunes and created wet areas that intersected wave cut sand structures. In the mornings the reflected light was golden, and in the late afternoons it was silver. 

What was supposed to be a few weeks of visits stretched to several months. I was captivated by the changes in the sands, and the variety of what could be seen. I ended up with over 70 images that I kept. What was beneath my feet and so carelessly walked over was a gallery of stunning beauty.

That experience transformed the way I see things. I had developed soft eyes.

The vision of complexity

What I see and esteem is not something that excites everybody. I couldn’t make an art form of how I see things and expect it would be popular. Back in the late 1960s I took a photo of a fallen log with a background of tea trees. It held a fascination for me that was incomprehensible to others. Where they saw ‘just bush’ I saw elegant complexity. I have recent similar images that fill me with delight, while my arty siblings offer compensatory comments about colours. They do not see what I see.

If bushland is just a chaos of plants, leaves, and branches it has no inherent meaning. A biologist or a botanist will see the same scene differently, but in a particularistic way.

As a coherent complexity, it ‘speaks’. This is something I grew up knowing; but had no frame of reference to articulate it – until Broadwater Beach. That experience took me consciously, step by step, into seeing beneath the habituated surface. Broadwater Beach triggered a flood of animistic poems, though at the time I had no language for that. Animism was an idea I would encounter for the first time a few years down the track.

Broadwater Beach image

The above image is from Broadwater Beach

Places have spirits

In the 1960s I walked in the Tasmanian wilderness as if it were already known to me. I was guided by something in ways that gave me an unwelcome reputation among my walking companions, even in my mid to late teens. My stepfather much later told me I had become known as somebody who could not get lost. 

The not getting lost bit was far more complex than I could let on, but I was also ‘guided’ by soft voices that whispered to me, or triggered visions of what was up ahead. Sometimes a direction simply felt right. I felt at home in the Tasmanian bush. It seemed to embrace and welcome me.

There were some places I was not welcome, perhaps the others were not welcome either, but they did not sense it. I could ‘see’ these places as I approached. They seemed discordant. Staying was not an option. If I tried, the best I could do was drop my pack and walk restlessly around. I’d find an excuse to wander off with my mug of tea in hand and come back only when the others were ready to move on.

On one memorable trip the group decided to camp by a group of granite boulders, but I could not pitch my tent until I had moved away quite some distance. I was chastised until I lied and said I snored badly, and I didn’t want to disturb others. In the morning virtually all those who had camped near the boulders reported nightmares, broken sleep and aches and pains on waking. I had slept soundly and was refreshed.

Sensing and vision

I think now there is a link between seeing complexity, rather than chaos when looking at the bush, and sensing the spirit of a place. Seeing something that seems to have meaning rather than being just a meaningless tangle of stuff creates an opportunity for meaning to emerge – as a sensation or feeling or thought.

The needed ‘soft eyes’ can be developed through intentional practice. When I moved to Katoomba, I saw the sandstone cliffs in geological terms for years. It was actually hard to stop taking photographs that were depicting the normal specific images. In fact, it was almost decade. During that time, I was in head mode – hyper rational and busy. Outside of work I was focused on study and working on the house. I had lost my ‘soft eyes’.

It was contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in April 2008 that changed me totally. The GBS conferred sudden paralysis, and after 3 months in an ICU, I was transferred to a rehab ward. I spent the first 9 months of 2009 doing physiotherapy to get my body working as well as it could, the last 6 months at home. My outside world was confined to the back verandah, which became a daily sense of place venue through autumn, winter and into spring.

Once I my ability to move was coherent enough to use Canadian crutches, I was able to get outside and get away from the house with a camera. But I discovered I needed to sit or lean to take photos. And not every opportunity accommodated itself to that need. Leaning was perilous in many places, and places to sit were scarce. Once again, I had to learn how to see differently.

Going bush was out of the question, so I learned to value the open gardens of Mt Wilson, which is about 45 minutes drive away. Sefton Cottage was my favourite. It was not the most spectacular, nor the largest, but it had the gentlest and calmest spirit. It was a bit wilder than other gardens – maybe that’s why it felt more at ease. It’s no longer open.

My first photo after recovery - Sefton Cottage Garden at Mt Wilson, NSW

Above is the first photo I took away from home after my recovery. It’s taken at Sefton Cottage garden at Mt Wilson, NSW.

Conclusion

We are mostly moving and thinking, and even when we stop and look around it is easy to be distracted by our chattering ‘monkey mind’. And when we do get quiet and look, we rarely see, because we are still telling ourselves what we are looking at. Part of the trick to developing soft eyes is to change what we tell ourselves about what we see. We can presume a complex order of lives constituting a community, and an entity, and shift our vision to ‘see’ that – and leave ourselves open to an engagement with what we see – daring to imagine it may be two-way. 

A Reflection at Black Mother Gully

Written on my birthday – 22 Jan – and got buried in my ‘to edit’ list. 

The chooks are making a racket and the breakfasting ducks pause and align their gaze. A passing shower obliges me to close my window. Another wet day. 

I have been listening to Don Watson’s Watsonia – a survey of his writing life. His sense of Australian landscape and culture reminded me of my jobs that were dominated by landscape – in northern and western NSW and on the Tasman Peninsula. 

That all stopped in mid 2006 when I began commuting eastward to Parramatta and Penrith.  Even so, I had the mountains at the beginning, and the end. In 2018 I commuted to Lithgow. It was mountains all the way. 

Watson’s evocative images, and extraordinary mastery of the language, reminded me how strongly we can split our awareness between the natural and human domains. On my commute east, once train passed Lapstone, and before it got to Emu Plains, the view from my window shifted from bush to the intensely and relentlessly human. 

I pause as the bird symphony is intruded by the sound of a jet overhead. My plane finder app tells me it’s a Qantas flight out of Sydney bound for Adelaide and it’s at 5,338 metres.  The human invades everywhere. 

The human is complex. Our senses are attuned to that complexity. Our eyes and ears are conditioned to interpret input that keeps us safe and helps us achieve our objectives. 

The natural world is complex. We know this rationally. Few of us have our senses finely tuned to it. At best we might engage with it as a respite from the relentlessly human. But rarely are such experiences immersive, or for long enough for us to need retuning to the human on our return. 

These days I avoid the inner city as much as I can, which is a lot. The sensory overload is exhausting and unpleasant. In contrast, when city dwelling family folk come to stay, they find the quietness almost unbearable. It can cause sleeplessness, apparently. 

The bush and the city are mutually incomprehensible, and maybe intolerable, to those senses and sensibilities are deeply attuned to the other.  This is as it should be. Fish do not walk on land, and I do not wander submerged. 

But we must not mistake a simple vision of a strange thing for a representation of what is. The absence of intimate familiarity is no sin, but neither is it a foundation upon which to presume an estimation of value or nature. 

We need to develop a dual nature that endows us with an ability to anticipate the presence of complexity of nature and behaviour of whatever we encounter – in the city or the bush. This is not a difficult task, but it a demanding one. It requires patience, stillness, to tune our senses. It requires the acquisition of knowledge that obliges us to reframe what and how we think. We don’t have to remember that knowledge, so long as it helps us unthink what we do think. As we unthink and tune our senses, we expose ourselves to things that may have been previously preposterous. 

A lot of opportunities to experience the paranormal are denied because we assume something ridiculous cannot be so.  Sometimes that lost opportunity is known only in hindsight. Some now long time ago, I was leaving home in a hurry. I had thrown my keys into a briefcase.  As I rushed to get out, I had a nagging thought to check that my keys were there. Ridiculous. I had tossed them in the briefcase mere moments ago and I had no time for a worry wort check.  I got to the car and ….no keys. Great. I was locked out of car and home. I was very late. When I managed to get back inside, I found the keys on the floor, right where my brief case had been. Had I heeded that hint, none of this would have happened. There was a lesson to be learned. I am less stupid these days, and nowhere near perfect – but now I listen to, and heed, the soft thoughts way more often than I ignore or dismiss them.

I hate flying. In the early 70s I was flying out of Adelaide to Melbourne and I was about to learn a valuable lesson. As I was about to board, I was overcome with an anticipation of drama and risk. I was unsettled scared by its force, and I needed to calm down. Was the plane going to crash? I sat down, composed myself and ‘felt into’ the journey. It would be okay. On approach at Melbourne, we were advised the was a problem with the undercarriage and the plane was going fly around a bit to get rid of fuel – just in case. We landed just fine. 

Not every ‘bad’ feeling has an adverse outcome. But I had to dare believe, and that, at that moment at the Adelaide airport, was a difficult choice until I calmed down and tuned in. I was on my way back to Tasmania – and I was driven to get there. As it turned out the plane’s passengers were right out of a Hollywood movie. There was a guy in handcuffs with 2 plain clothes cops as escorts, 2 nuns, a priest, a young couple with a newborn child. There was no way it would have been okay if we had crashed and burned.

I had adopted the habit of ‘feeling into’ a trip. Sometimes I did not go as intended, because it didn’t feel right. Mostly, there no evidence that was a good move. But one time, outside The Place cafe in Kings Cross, Sydney, I sat on the back of a motorbike and instantly felt bad. As good as the rider was, he was also inclined to push things to the edge. I got off, giving a weak excuse about feeling crook, so as to not offend him. I knew, if I had been truthful, he would have laughed at me. I was replaced by a shorter guy. He had his knee grazed in a close shave with a car that had moved out of a lane without seeing the bike. 

I don’t know if I was seeing what did happen or whether I dodged a more serious injury. It’s not possible to know. Not every thought that comes into our minds is uncontested. We habitually evaluate and edit notions that seem irrational or preposterous. We have a conceit that we are smart enough to know enough to make a judgement on a sudden, unbidden, thought – usually reflexively and with no careful consideration. We aren’t. The trouble is that averting a problem means you have no evidence that your intuition was good. Hindsight is, unfortunately, a good teacher – but sometimes it’s too late. 

Around 1992 I was driving for work between Grafton and Armidale on the NSW mid north coast. As I approached the crest of a hill sitting on around 100 kph I suddenly snapped into a strange hyper alert state. As I hit the crest, I saw a car insanely attempting to overtake a slow log truck on my side of the 2 lane road. I recall flicking left onto the verge, which was fortunately free of series debris, and back onto the road. As I drove on, I was in a state of shock. My heart was pounding and I was in a very strange headspace. I recall debating whether to pull over and chill or not. I decided that if I pulled over, I would probably fall apart and not be able to drive. I didn’t want that, so I kept going. I was fully conscious that the sudden hyper alert state saved me from a full-on head-on.

A few months later I was driving from Lismore to Moree. I was over the speed limit to the point where I might have been booked, had I been caught. It was a nice straight road, conducive to going over the speed limit. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of a blue light in my rear vision mirror. I cursed and slowed down, expecting a police car to loom up. Only it didn’t happen. There was no police car behind me. But there was in front. I slowed down just before a bend and went through it at about 80kph – and there, previously out of sight, was a police car and a cop with a speed gun. 

Even when my envisioning of my journey left me feeling confident it was to be a safe journey that did not mean everything was uneventful – just that I would get to my destinate safely – though maybe scared half to death. In a way, feeling into the journey developed a habit of ‘seeing ahead’ that certainly saved me from speeding fines. My colleagues and managers were all regional roles, and I think I was the only one, over 18 months, not to pinged for speeding. Several colleagues were down to the last points on their licenses – and their jobs were at risk.

You can fall prey to what are fears, and anxieties, that intrude. Not all ‘intuitions’ are that. But rather than dismiss awareness of them as folly, it is far better to learn to distinguish between fears and intuitions. That requires practice. Pause, on becoming conscious of an odd notion, and interrogate it – intuition or anxiety?

There’s a two-way conversation between the rational conscious domain of our mind and the unconscious intuitive realms. But mostly we edit and filter it out so, that, at best, it is a fleeting notion that offends against our immediate dominant habit of rational thinking (or so we fondly think it is), and is dismissed. There is so much ‘monkey mind’ chatter the subtle thoughts are missed or dismissed. Our normal states of mind are unfriendly places for intuitions. We can make them better.

Writing can be a useful tool to learn to discern those subtle thoughts and intuitions from the storm of emotions – once we have mastered the art of getting beyond our ego and conceit – and into an authentic voice. Here I don’t mean writing something for publication or sharing – just a private practice – a journal perhaps. This won’t help with idiot errors that get you locked out of car and home, but it can develop a softer ear to one’s inner voice.

If we write badly it’s because we were never taught to write well. If we can learn to write ‘from the heart’, we can tap into a deeper level of awareness and insight. We usually start off in a pretentious way – ineptly aping how we imagine good writing should be. It can take time to drill down beneath the BS to find our hearts. Mind, some souls are blessed with the ability to get there quickly.

In late 1996 I was coming back on a ferry from Calais to Dover. I had been on a non-lander return trip to buy duty free wine and cigarettes. I was sitting with a pint of bitter, reading, I have forgotten what. Suddenly I was struck with the idea that I would be a writer. It was a forceful and sharp notion that startled and rattled me. When I got home, I went to bed and bawled for close on 24 hours. I had no idea why, but I could not stop.

I had been writing in various ways for years, but I was not ‘a writer’. I did not take the idea to mean I would become a published author. Rather, writing would be something I did intentionally, as a practice – as a hobby perhaps. 

I still do not understand what happened on the ferry, nor afterwards. Now it seems like the purging of long pent-up emotion, some buried grief that had to be released, maybe.

In 1998, back in Australia, I joined the Far North Coast Regional chapter of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW). I took to the meetings and workshops with a passion. In 1999 I entered the local chapter’s annual literary competition with 7 pieces. Like all such competitions, it was open for entries around the country and overseas. I was stunned to receive 5 awards – a First Place, 2 Highly Commended, 1 Commended, and Worthy of Mention in short story, article essay and poetry categories.

That was a brief blaze of glory. No other contestant had won as many awards in a single competition in the 12 years it had been running. I didn’t continue to enter literary competitions – though I did later enter a couple of pieces and one award a couple of years later. I stopped writing short stories and poetry after a few years because of my focus on my tertiary studies. It seems as if the experience was about getting me writing – and nothing else. I have put that newly developed skill to good use in my subsequent academic studies and professional work. But privately I have continued to write notes and explore ideas associated with my primary passion – some of which is expressed in this blog.

The point of this story is that a sudden and powerful experience was allowed full expression and realization. After bawling for 24 hours – and I mean this literally, not figuratively – I used a chunk of my meagre resources to buy a word-processing typewriter and started writing like crazy. Writing became my main medium of contact with a deeper sense of awareness – a kind of in between state of consciousness that was neither fully rational nor a reverie or trance.

But writing to tap deeper layers of awareness was a perilous business at first. Getting beyond ego and conceit was not easy. It took a lot of practice. I was told by a spiritual teacher some years back that what I had written was largely useless as a source of insight and ideas. It had too much ‘me’ (ego) in it. I couldn’t get out of my own way to let my deeper nature speak onto the page. 

It’s still a work in progress. 

Conspiracy? Really?

Foreword

This was originally posted in April 2018. I decided to re post it because the blight of conspiracy theories is worse now. Over the past few years, I have looked into conspiracy claims sent to me by friends. They were willing to believe; and sent me the claim because they thought I would be “interested” and share their concern, or alarm. But it took me rarely more than an hour to google enough information to render the original story at least suspect. And often bogus. 

This kicked off a fascination for the nature of belief – a theme I arrogantly thought I could knock over in a few months. I am now 18 months into my quest, and the ‘answer’ still dances like an enticing mirage, in sight, but out of reach.

When we say “I know” something, we are stating a belief. It may be that the question we must ask is not whether the ‘belief’ is true, but whether it is gently held in service of what is good. And even so, the reader will instantly see that here, also, is a problem. This is the paradox we face.

What follows is a reflection on an investigation of a claim that offended my sense of being “in service of what is good.”

Introduction

I have just spent a couple of months reluctantly becoming entranced by the claim that the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was an elaborate hoax construed by the US government. Actually, I became entranced by one Wolfgang Halbig, the man who kicked off the claim.

The public story is that on 14 December 2012 Adam Lanza went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Newtown, Connecticut and shot 20 students and teachers dead and wounded another 2. Halbig says this ‘shooting’ was in fact a hoax, an exercise concocted by the USA government as part of a campaign to control guns. Halbig collaborated with Professor emeritus Jim Fetzer in a book, published under Fetzer’s name entitled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. That book was apparently withdrawn from sale on Amazon, but can be had online in PDF form.

For this idea to be real the government would have had to have induced the families of around 500 kids at the school (based on post 2012 figures) and their extended families, friends, neighbors, workmates and others to play along with the cruel lie that children did not die. In fact a whole community would have had to be induced to play along. And the difficulty in making that happen is so vast it hurts my head just trying to imagine it.

My immediate response was that the claim was complete nonsense. Halbig’s assertions didn’t make any sense to me. But he was plainly believed by a lot of rational, intelligent and thoughtful people. So why didn’t they see what I thought I saw? Why were they disposed to believe? What was it about Halbig and his claims that triggered me to be deeply suspicious of his claims? I was told that nobody had disputed Halbig’s credentials. That wasn’t literally true, but I think the statement intended to mean that among those who believed Halbig there was no reason to doubt his credentials. In other words he seemed to be eminently plausible on face value.

Now I am not a stone hard conspiracy skeptic – or denier. I accept that 9/11 stinks like a dead sheep in the summer sun. We have been lied to or been subject to serial misrepresentation on many many things since Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. Just not everything. Some of my friends are default conspiracy theorists – that is their starting point. To be fair that’s probably a prudent safety strategy, so I respect folk who take that position.

But here is an upside-down conspiracy. Supposedly the government conspires to convince a nation that a shooting that did not actually take place did. Usually it is the other way round. Something did take place and the government denies it. Getting a community that knows an event did not take place to pretend that it did just lifts the order of complexity into the stratosphere.

To me the very idea that this was a government conspiracy is just so ludicrous I struggle to understand why anyone who paid it any attention could sustain belief in the proposition.

We are supposed to accept that some bloke watching telly on the other side of the country sees evidence in news reports that it is all a hoax. We are asked to believe that he has the insight and acuteness of perception to discern this so readily via a television report. This one was so acutely aware that he alone knew what was really going on.

The Problem With Conspiracies

If you pay attention to the conspiracy theorists this was the one time the government went all squeamish and decided not to use its tried and true method of actually setting up a mass shooting and framing some poor sucker as the lone wolf crazy. This time it decided to engage a whole community in an elaborate fraud to only pretend that the shooting took place. Parents and grandparents would have to pretend that their child had died. The child would have to pretend to be dead, agree to a new identity and be separated from their family. Even if we could imagine a government conceiving such a lunatic scheme what would motivate the families? Halbig suggests money would. Really?

My background – personal and professional – compels me to reject this proposition as ludicrous and preposterous. For most of my working life I have been in federal, state or local government roles, and operating on a conspiracy first basis would be suicidal in terms of professional conduct and career.

My model is assume incompetence (normal) first, then unorganized low-level corruption before considering conspiracy as an option. I have to say that by taking this approach I have still ended up at conspiracy, but relatively rarely. In my roles presuming conspiracy first is a denial of natural justice. You may think that assuming incompetence is just as unjust but reality is a fusion of natural mess (complexity which conceals evident order) and natural mild human incompetence (we are mostly wrong and we don’t do things particularly well naturally– which is why we need so many rules and management experts). Once that natural incompetence was just considered normal. Now management theories demand ongoing improvement, which is usually lost on public servants who sincerely do not get what the problem is. But that’s a whole essay or two in itself as a topic.

My point is that in any kind of role, if you want to survive, the incompetence/corruption/ conspiracy model works very well. If you are a complete outsider, a mere spectator or recipient of information on a matter about which you know squat, maybe having conspiracy as a default response is a useful and prudent reflex.

If you are in the forest and you see something that looks like it could be a bear it is better to act as if it is a bear – if you are not a forest dweller. That will improve your chances of not getting eaten by a bear – provided you know how to behave. If you are a forest dweller, and you know how bears behave, you can start off thinking that that bush looks like a bear – but it’s only a bush.

For a whole bunch of reasons mostly associated with my now many public service roles, it seemed to me that Halbig was operating in a forest I knew pretty well, but he did not – and neither did those who believe and support him. He saw something that looked like a bear to him and went hollering to the whole world that it was bear. But it wasn’t.

At various times I have inspected aged and disability accommodation for compliance with licensing conditions, conducted field audits against contract compliance requirements, investigated allegations of serious misconduct, conducted program evaluations, prepared evidence of prosecution of tax offences, prepared evidence for medical tribunal assessments of claims for military disability pensions, reviewed and remediated service systems, assessed tender submissions, conducted contract performance reviews. In essence I have a very strong background in assessing people, situations, systems, performance. I also spent over 3 years in recruitment – interviewing people, assessing their backgrounds, skills and character. I have also conducted a number of community strategic plan consultations, so I have a sense of the complexities of a community at a social and economic level.

I have also been involved in bush search and rescue in a very direct way. I have been in floods and fire crises as a volunteer. So, I have some small appreciation of how things can go in critical incidents. I have never been involved in anything to do with shootings.

In 1997 I worked with the Tasman Council in Tasmania in a position associated with the shootings at Port Arthur the previous year. So I have some sense of personal and community responses to a shooting tragedy.

Apart from going to 4 primary (elementary schools) a high school and a matriculation college, my experience of schools has been limited to dating a primary school teacher and later marrying a high school teacher – and selling books and teaching aids to around 30 rural and regional schools during a brief and unhappy foray into private enterprise.

And I have Masters and Masters Honors degrees in Social Ecology, which I hope conferred on my some capacity for research and analysis.

I have gone through this background because Halbig claims to have a background in law enforcement and in school safety and security. I can’t assess him on those things because I don’t know enough about either. But I can say that on the basis of the information I was able to review I doubt either claim would stand up to scrutiny by people who know these fields well.

What Happens When You Ask Informed Questions?

I have been involved in a bunch of community-based organizations incorporated under state legislation and funded by state and federal departments. At various times I have been an ordinary board member, a secretary, a deputy chair, and a chair. I was a co-founder of one organization, and I set up the board, wrote the funding proposal, gained community and business sponsorship. In short I know how to set up and run an NGO. In a professional capacity I have assessed NGOs to ensure compliance with legislation, which is a condition funding.

So, when I read that Halbig had founded two institutes, and had conferred upon himself impressive titles (Education Director, Chief Investigator, Executive Director and National School Safety Consultant). I knew to ask key questions – how substantial were these institutes? What was their revenue? What did they do? So, were they just paper exercises that gave legal legitimacy to claims of impressive positions?

Halbig and another person set up a security company (some sources say he set up several companies). Did it trade? To what degree? Was it more than a basis for Halbig to claim to be a security consultant, or a school safety consultant?

I found nothing on Google to convince me that the institutes had any standing in their claimed field. Likewise, I could find no confirmation that his security company had ever operated in any substantial manner, or at all.

This is evidence of nothing in particular, other than that neither institute nor the security company had any enduring presence on the web. They could have flowered brightly and briefly.

Halbig claims he is or is claimed as (it is unclear exactly which) a nationally recognised expert in school security and safety. He claims he has investigated school mass shootings, including Columbine. But this claim came late, and, if true, should have been a key element of his claimed credentials. However.

, nobody has been able, apparently, to verify this claim. When interviewed by mainstream media his qualifications were far more modest. This is interesting because the media was supposed to be a part of this establishment plot. Indeed, far from sustaining the conspiracy claim, mainstream media dealt harshly with Halbig’s claims.

I am an Australian in a nation of 24 million, and not in the USA with a population of just under 327 million. The population size matters because here in Australia getting recognised as a national expert generally means you have a substantial, visible and credible profile with evident expertise and standing in your business area. But in a much vaster population maybe the bar is set much lower because, comparatively, visibility is much lower and the relative need to demonstrate merit is lower. One could become a ‘nationally recognised’ expert via a narrow community of people. The term could actually be meaningless, but can imply a great deal. The claim could be true, but the implication misleading.

How many people does take for one to become a ‘nationally recognised’ authority? If I had one person in each state and territory in Australia willing to say I was an expert in X does that mean I could say I was nationally recognised?

I haven’t seen Halbig’s CV. I have seen a document put out by the SandyHookFacts.com website (a site created by members of the Sandy Hook community) which tracks significant recorded evidence, and which provides a timeline of aspects of his career. Halbig, or his supporters, claim he has presented before many school boards across the country on the subject of school security. This may be true, but was that on the basis of his self-styled positions in his own self-created institutes?

Halbig claims a credible background in law enforcement. Others, who claim to know, dispute his claims. When he makes public claims related to law enforcement actual law enforcement agencies seem to disagree with him. While he may have been a Florida State Trooper, the extent and length of his service is not evident. I am used to hearing law enforcement officers being quite precise about the nature and length of their service. I have seen no evidence that Halbig is as precise.

Halbig claims to be an expert in school safety and security. I’d expect this to be confirmed in explicit ways. When interviewed by the BBC Halbig is described as an administrator and safety advisor only – a very modest rendition of his claims. There is clear evidence he served in an administrative capacity with Lake County Schools as Director of Risk Management. This role, however, seems to have been concerned with employee WHS and insurance, not student safety and security. His apparent co-ownership of a security business (while being employed full time it seems) does give him the right to say he is a security consultant.

I have no doubt at all that his role as Director of Risk Management gave him the opportunity to visit many schools in his district (with 65,000 students apparently) and form opinions about school safety and security which may have been perfectly valid, insightful and valuable. But I saw no convincing evidence that any of his opinions or insights could be sustained on the grounds of professional expertise.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of Halbig’s character as recorded. He seems to be not well liked in many of the recorded perceptions of him. There are a number of recorded comments about him, and to him, saying he is a know it all who knows nothing, and claiming that he is aggressive and offensive in public forums. There are records of his attempts to win elected office and he seems to consistently perform very poorly compared to those who are successful – he loses by very significant margins.

Again, perhaps this is an Australian perspective, because of the small population; people who win national standing tend to be likable folk. Credible national experts tend to be able to manage their public images – are able to ‘sell’ themselves to people in authority consistently.

Now it could be that my assessment of Halbig is flawed in a major way – the information about him, and upon which I rely, is incomplete and insufficient. I would acknowledge this as a risk, but then would object that there is a pattern of probability here exposing three key weaknesses, in terms of what I can confirm readily:

  1. Halbig’s claim of expertise cannot be readily verified, and is, in some instances specifically refuted.
  2. Halbig’s apparent standing and credentials are almost wholly dependent on legal entities in which he has a personal stake as founder. It is easy to form the impression that he created them and the titles he later relies upon – and these entities did no other work.
  3. Halbig doesn’t appear to be a likable person in general. This matters because being liked is a big factor. Being likable is a major factor in personal success, and especially professional success. Now and then there are people who deliver great professional value, but are not liked by clients and that does not matter. This could account for Halbig, but I doubt it.

I do not know how a person with these adverse indicators could make it to the degree that he is genuinely considered a national expert; and be employed in projects run by the US Department of Justice. I am assuming that the Department conducts proper background checks. If they do and they can confirm that Halbig met their requirements I am happy to rescind my adverse provisional opinions.

This isn’t a take down of Halbig as a person. I have heard him speak and I have no personal issues with him at all. What I am trying to do here is trace my efforts to satisfy myself that I should accept this guy’s claims.

This is an account of how I have responded to a hugely serious allegation in tune with my natural personal and professional reflexes – relative to somebody who has no experience or knowledge that can help them break down a situation.

There are real and important conspiracies to manipulate what we know and think about the world and reality we live in. People in positions of power conspire routinely to retain that power or to gain more. Their motives are grubby and shameful enough. If we are induced to give them credit for deeply elaborate and complex plots, we are handing to them a power they should not have, and we are surrendering a power we must retain.

We must obtain and retain the capacity to distinguish between a genuine conspiracy and a fake one. Halbig’s claim that the Sandy Hook shootings were a fraud invokes a level of complexity that, for me, cannot seriously be executed and a motive that cannot be comprehended against the sacrifice the complicit community must make, let alone at an individual level. And the fact that members of the community are resisting Halbig’s claims just demonstrates how hard it is to induce a whole community to play along with an insanely elaborate fraud.

I believe that aspects of 9/11 point to a conspiracy by some elements of the American government and power elite. Perhaps because I have had an enduring interest in community development, and personal and professional involvement in community engagement, as well as an active interest in sociology I think any 9/11 fraud would be a walk in the park compared to setting up a Sandy Hook massacre hoax. Imagining the motive defeats me. Imagining the methodology just sends me into shock.

I get that these days we are constantly induced to offer our opinions, and many take up those invitations with relish even though they are devoid of any actual knowledge, experience, or insight.

I get that the level of trust is now so low that presumption of conspiracy is prudent. But that does not mean that you employ the conspiracy reflex as an actual response – just keep it as a provisional response. If you don’t have the time or means to check out a claimed situation, do try to be a genuine skeptic – one who suspends formation of opinion because they have insufficient evidence to arrive at an informed conclusion.

Finding a Balance

I have been, and will remain, an enduring fan of Phillip Adams, the immortal host of the ABC Radio National program Late Night Live. Phillip has long and loudly declared himself an atheist. His listeners do not care. But one evening not so long ago he was indulging himself with a bit of a homey chat with a fellow atheist. They carelessly opined that being an agnostic was kinda gutless. Not knowing was, they were saying, a lack of courage. You had, in their mind, to elect Yes or No. Saying I don’t know was not acceptable.

This was and is a bullshit materialist trick. In fact, any deeply critical examination of what we think we know will appal us by demonstrating that most of what we think we know is rubbish and most of what we think we can know is illusion. We ultimately guess. Mostly we engage in acts of social affirmation and not philosophy. We are more concerned to be accepted and liked than demonstrate a capacity for deep critical thought. It’s not a nice thing to know about oneself, but it is necessary.

I like to think that I say “I don’t know.” a lot. I do say “I don’t care.” a lot. I like to think I care whether I can genuinely evaluate claims within my capacity to assess and confirm claims. I do work hard to watch, listen to, and read what quality stuff I can. But in the end I live in a community in which being loved is more important than being a smart arse.

Maybe the Nazis really did contact Reptilians who gave them access to anti-gravity technology so they could get to the Moon and Mars and have a ‘secret base’ in the Antarctic. But, you know, I really don’t give a shit. If this has been going on since the 1940s it hasn’t impinged on our reality to an extent that it is completely unworkable (this is another huge topic). The Halbig thing is more important to me.

It is the phenomenon of acceptance of, and belief in, conspiracies that seriously has me intrigued. The reflex to believe conspiracy is something I get and respect. But like any defensive reflex it must be only provisional, pending further evidence. You cannot build a successful defence strategy on inflexibility – the Maginot Line is the famous case in point. My personal motto seems to have become ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

Assuming conspiracy and then locking it in sans evidence is, well, self-indulgent. It means arriving at a fixed position in advance of evidence and then being unable to adapt to actual evidence.

I have been asked why I got so wound up about Sandy Hook and Wolfgang Halbig. Outside natural compassion, I do not much care about Halbig the man. I care more that families in Sandy Hook have been subjected to the awful allegation that they participated in a lie that their children died. It is the willingness to believe that Halbig had a case that concerns me. From the very outset the idea that a mass shooting had been staged should have been treated with the deepest suspicion, and the most compelling evidence demanded. Instead, the claims that supported the hoax hypothesis were just risible. But I am being unkind. They were risible to me because I have a deep sense of how governments work, and what they can and cannot do – and what they will and will not do.

They will do terrible things in our name. But some things they cannot do – and running a hoax as alleged at Sandy Hook is one such thing.

My default was not conspiracy, but doubt and curiosity. I have less investment in whether Halbig is right or wrong – but how his claims were assessed, and why some people elected to follow his conspiracy theory and others did not.

The Halbig situation embraces a number of issues. He appears credible to those who do not know enough to think otherwise. It seems to me that this was his intent. I suspect that he set out to deceive and misrepresent who and what he is. I think he was intimidated by the BBC journalists who visited him in his home, and he contracted his misrepresentations to a safe degree.

Halbig is supported by allies, who respond to the fact that his details were allegedly removed from Wikipedia. The inference is that Wikipedia or some other agency was responsible. But the reality is that personal bio data on Wikipedia is frequently changed by people who have personal or ideological motives. I could well imagine that Halbig took down his own information. You can write your own bio on Wikipedia, and others can amend it.

Halbig’s Wikipedia data was supposedly transferred to another site but it is, in my view, doubtful that Halbig is the author or that he authorized the content, because of the inconsistencies. For example, this new posting claims Halbig assessed or provided training in over 8,000 school districts nationwide. On the basis of published information it does seem that Halbig could not have done this until 2009. So, if this information were to be considered credible he would have had to visit 3-4 schools per day every week from 2009 to 2017. That is, in my view, not plausible.

I do not believe that Halbig authored or approved this information. I also do not believe that if you are a nationally respected and recognised expert in the field of school security and safety you would be abandoned to the support of idiots or be careless of what is published about you.

Conclusion

I have tried to apply a genuinely critical assessment of Halbig’s attributes with no interest at all in his claims about Sandy Hook Elementary. Is he a credible agent?

I have been working from Australia using only my computer and acting in comparative haste. I have not done an in-depth analysis, only a quick and dirty indicative one. The impression I have formed is that I do not think that Halbig is either a credible person in the fields of expertise he claims or in relation to his claims about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Pending closer and better research, I am not persuaded Halbig is a credible actor on the basis of the evidence I have had access to. I do not have evidence to prove my case, but I am satisfied that it is reasonable for me to assert that there is no compelling evidence that Halbig’s opinion on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting should carry any weight.

I have done my homework on this matter. I think I am entitled to express an informed opinion. What about you?

There are real conspiracies we should attend to. If we cannot tell truth from fiction because we have not bothered to go beyond our comfortable prejudices and biases, we risk losing the right and power to know what is true and what is not.

Defaulting to conspiracy mode is justifiable as a remote defensive reflex. It is not a foundation on which to build policy or commit to action, and you cannot hope to have a culture of justice and truth if your first reflex is conspiracy.

I was watching one of those Marvel movies in which a deranged officer of the US military recites his duty to defend his country against “enemies foreign and domestic” as he kills a superior officer. Yes, that was a fiction, but the alt right guest on the podcast Unslaveddescribing left progressives as “enemies” was not.

The internal fault lines between groups of people in our cultures are becoming magnified as our means to communicate ideas and emotions become more sophisticated and accessible. It is easier to make allegations without evidence and gain a support base. It is easier for disinformation and misinformation to be not only spread, but targeted. Fake news is not new. Calling it that is.

There are many possible conspiracies afoot these days, and it can be tempting to become a passive consumer led by one’s prejudices and suspicions – and accept accusations as true. But, in reality, that is to risk causing damage and harm to institutions and people who do not deserve it.

I don’t have time to investigate every conspiracy to which my attention is drawn, and I am not prepared to take other people’s words on them. Long experience has taught me that doing so is perilous. I have made poor professional decisions because I trusted information given to me by colleagues who sincerely believed the information was true. It was not. Somebody assumed and nobody checked. These days I apply the carpenter’s rule of ‘measure twice and cut once’.

If defaulting to conspiracy mode is moving to an attitude that is vigilant and sceptical, I have no concern with that. But we live in an age when we are encouraged to have opinions expressed confidently and assertively. It is easy to be seduced into belief, and whether we like it or not, belief is not a neutral state – it is an action that has consequences.

Yes, we are lied to routinely by governments, commercial interests, and religions. Misrepresenting truth is the norm and has always been the case. Maybe it would be nice to return to days when we did not know this was the case – and we could innocently believe. No chance, sadly. Here we are, and here we will stay.

This imposes upon us a critical duty to manage our perceptions and conceptions of truth by taking personal responsibility to evaluate what we elect to believe. If we abdicate that personal responsibility for critical assessment, we are abdicating a vital element of our liberty.

Technology has not eradicated the need for hard work. It has simply shifted the demand for effort from the physical to the metaphysical (intellectual, emotional and spiritual). Our access to the sophisticated information technology means that we now have unfamiliar chores to perform – developing the intellectual and moral fitness to engage with what we encounter online.

Our biases are where we are weakest, and most vulnerable. Conspiracy theorists believe they are strengthening their liberty by identifying plots. But if they fail in their due diligence, they are also revealing how they can be exploited, manipulated and preyed upon.

In a substantial population of 327 million you need only a tiny proportion of that population to generate a sustainable marketplace – in terms of credibility and income. A conspiracy theory can be a source of income. Believers will give you money. Even if you do not give money you need to know that what seems to you like a plausible proposition could be no more than a scam that has been finely marketed to trigger your biases.

Richard D Hall’s investigation into the claimed abduction of Madeleine McCann (on YouTube) is not just an example of how an investigation of a suspected conspiracy should be undertaken, It also reveals what happens to money donated by people sympathetic to what turns out to more probably be an elaborate lie. Not a lot of it actually, or usefully, supported the core proposition – that Madeleine could be found.

Halbig raised money that enabled him to go places and do things he could not have otherwise done. While not accusing him of misappropriation I simply observe that there seems to have been no form of independent governance over the funds received. If funds are applied to travel, for example, there is no way of knowing the class of a plane ticket, the standard of a hotel, the cost of a meal. It seems to be easy to be funded to live well, and not tax one’s own funds. There is, in short, no code of conduct for recipients of unregulated public funds given freely to informal requests for aid.

Halbig didn’t survive because his claim had merit, but because his claim had fans who were not interested in any factuality. They bought the conspiracy/hoax story. That is what they want, and it is what they pay for.

Of course, Halbig could have a personality disorder. Intelligent and sophisticated people experience personality disorders and that could drive their behaviors in certain circumstances. I found reading up on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder particularly instructive in the context of those who instigate and propagate conspiracy theories.

In an article in the New York Magazine article Halbig is quoted as saying. “I feel good, because I really feel deep inside my heart that no children died that day,” … But then on the other side, what if I’m wrong?” https://www.newstimes.com/news/article/Sandy-Hook-parent-hoaxer-continue-their-9213399.php)

Elsewhere Halbig is quoted as saying “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “if I’m wrong, I need to be institutionalised.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-39194035)

So these are the words of a bona fide nationally recognised and respected expert on school safety? I don’t think so.

Why Gods?

I am sitting at Black Mother Gully (BMG). It’s very quiet, but I hear magpies – and more as I listen more intently. Voices of children in the distance. Another overcast morning. 

Why gods? They are universal in the consciousness of humanity – under many names. The term itself is a problem for a Western European because we think it has a meaning that is useful. In fact, it’s a vague gesture in a complex direction – and no more. 

Hence whether one “believes in” God – or not – is just as meaningless. In this case belief inis vague but disbelief is specific. It is, after all, hard to disbelieve in a vague way. This is, of course, unless one is a materialist who utterly denies the metaphysical. But again, no materialist really does that. They just say they do. 

Imagine

So, what are the gods of our ancestors? Imagine all the forces of nature described by science in terms of them being mechanical forces – and now imagine them as forces of consciousness. That’s pretty much it. 

That wasn’t a matter of belief in – only a matter of not conceiving of nature as an objective reality.  Imagine a parent or a child. You know that, on some level, their presence is ultimately an assemblage of atoms, but to be conscious of that you’d have to put your head into a peculiar space. Ordinarily you imagine an entity with presence and behaviours, and with whom you have a relationship. Scale that imagination to embrace all that you know. The modern mechanist vision was neither available to, nor useful to, our ancestors.  

If we want to understand gods we must, therefore, be aware of how we constrain the concept and make it dance to our tune. 

Changing How We Think and Believe

The widespread materialism and loss of belief is a cultural phenomenon that is part of our evolution in how we comprehend our reality. That loss of faith is down to two important developments. The first is the evolution of Christianity into a multifaceted discourse about the divine and human relations with it. The second is the development of the lens. 

In certain respects, all human culture is a discourse between the human and the other-than-human. In terms of our culture, Christianity marked a transition between what we call paganism and what became known as The Enlightenment – and what happened afterwards. 

The lens made available to us the very small and the very large. Both were previously realms available only to imagination and speculation. There was a naive expectation that the lens would reveal the handiwork of God. When such evidence was not forthcoming, the impatient lost faith and decided no such agency existed. We live, in a sense, in the Glass Age – or the Silicon Age.

There’s a popular misconception that science has grown because of freedom from religion. But a review of the history of science will confirm that this is no more than a ploy by materialists to mislead. The great Newton was no atheist or materialist, and the developers of quantum science were likewise not members of the cliche that now claims sole rights over the shared history of scientific advance. Indeed, it is fair to argue that the religious and the metaphysically inclined have contributed the lion’s share to scientific inquiry. Galileo, the materialists’ poster boy was still a believer. He merely ran afoul of Church dogma and his own intemperate mouth. 

We must distinguish between belief as it once was, and as it has now become. Attitudes toward religion have shifted markedly in the past century. Active participation in religious activity has been declining since the end of World War 1, and in recent years a new category has arisen – Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR). Atheism is growing as well, but this is less about a positive move in that direction than a lack of exposure to religious ideas. No point in believing in something you know nothing about – though, to be fair, that’s hardly an impediment in the current climate. 

The Pew Research Centre’s surveys demonstrate that in the USA, at least, non-materialistic belief is alive and well. In the USA, 72% of ‘Nones’ (no religion) believe in god or a higher power. According to Pew:

The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind.

In Western Europe, the majority of people identify as Christian. In the general population 74% believe in God as described in the Bible (27%) or in another higher power (38%). Belief in no God or higher power is significantly higher than in the USA, at 24%.

It is interesting to note that belief in a ‘higher power’ is significantly higher than belief in a Biblical God, or nothing – which are almost on a par.

Nietzsche’s observation that the old conception of God is dead (not that God per se is) sums up the situation. Even the relatively high numbers who assert an affiliation with a faith belie the level of disengagement from the dogmas, rituals and events that once made up an active community of faith. There’s a lot of reserve now. It’s as if there’s a waiting for something to change.

Our conception of God has simply transformed into many things – and no one conception holds sway – despite efforts to say otherwise by a tenacious few. Here it is worthwhile noting that it is ever an extreme minority who assert exclusive claims to knowledge about what is true and right – theistic or atheistic. The rest of us dwell somewhere on a spectrum of engagement with belief – from the scarcely motivated to the highly motivated – without bothering to contest differing views – beyond being sensitive to their ability to ruin social occasions. 

If the trend in quantum physics persists… (I suddenly stop writing and leave. As I do 3 vehicles arrive. The peace is gone. BMG fades away and Maple Grove Park is open for business)

As I was saying… we will be discussing exactly what the underpinning constituent consciousness of knowable reality is – and how it is organized. What will be different is that we will bring vastly different tools and ways of knowing. One hurdle will be the habit of distinguishing between objective and subjective knowledge – a holdover from The Enlightenment. We have invested a lot in this distrust of self in the process of perception. In the past it has helped distinguish between superstition and the new knowledge of science. But as we explore the nature of perception and experience that distinction no longer appears valid. In terms of knowledge, we are moving from a sense of the absolute to contingency being the norm. In terms of values, the reverse seems as if it may be true.

The Value of the Past

We see persistent memories of the ancient way of engaging with profound ideas as if they are expressions of a deep consciousness, rather than abstract ideas. The image of justice being a blindfolded woman holding scales and carrying a sword speaks more coherently as a symbolic image than a rational definition of the idea of justice. 

The Oxford dictionary struggles to offer a definition of justice as “just behaviour or treatment” and “the quality of being fair and reasonable”. Justice can’t be usefully reduced to a rational description of an abstract idea. But it can be conveyed as a ‘spirit’ and encapsulated in an image.

This idea goes back to Ancient Egypt and the Goddess Maat. This is from Britannica.com:

Maat, also spelled Mayet, in ancient Egyptian religion, the personification of truth, justice, and the cosmic order. The daughter of the sun god Re, she was associated with Thoth, god of wisdom.

The ceremony of judgment of the dead (called the “Judgment of Osiris,” named for Osiris, the god of the dead) was believed to focus upon the weighing of the heart of the deceased in a scale balanced by Maat (or her hieroglyph, the ostrich feather), as a test of conformity to proper values.

In its abstract sense, maat was the divine order established at creation and reaffirmed at the accession of each new king of Egypt. In setting maat ‘order’ in place of isfet ‘disorder,’ the king played the role of the sun god, the god with the closest links to Maat. Maat stood at the head of the sun god’s bark as it traveled through the sky and the underworld. Although aspects of kingship and of maat were at times subjected to criticism and reformulation, the principles underlying these two institutions were fundamental to ancient Egyptian life and thought and endured to the end of ancient Egyptian history.

What we see here in this brief example is an instance of a sophisticated moral theory being woven into a foundational narrative context. Humans have used stories as the primary means of conveying crucial values for the most part of our history. So, we can see the fusion of two essential truths – the sense of reality being ‘spirit’ and not dead mechanism, and the use of story as the primary means of conveying critical moral precepts.

In terms of our cultural history, we go back to Sumer for the origins of writing and mathematics as cities evolved as the major form of human community and the heavens a primary consideration for disciplined inquiry. Here we start to see the emergence of ‘rational’ intelligence as a powerful instrument. But still, the gods remained as a critical part of the cultural narrative for millennia. That narrative gave humans access to an integrated and holistic discourse that we began to lose as ‘Reason’ sought to dominate from The Enlightenment to now.

Our story-telling has a limited number of themes. There are claims and arguments about how many movie plots there are. These themes are moral or archetypal and play out no matter what the setting is. It does not matter whether a story is set 5,000 years in the past or the future. These fundamental themes are perennial and endure. The stories change in specifics, not in character, to keep the ‘spirit’ of the tale alive and relatable. Here stories of gods and spirits and heroes do some rational discourse alone cannot achieve.

Conclusion

The past offers us guidance to understand what is missing from our now. In the sense of L. P. Hartley’s immortal words “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Our ancestors did things differently, not worse, not more primitively. Modern efforts to recover the past through occult organisaitons are useful to help us understand what of value in that different way of doing things can be discovered. But they are not practices that herald the future.

Our cultural discourse is so thoroughly a mush of materialism, residues of faith, superstitions, and hubris that it is a form of confusion, if not a madness of some sort. It is not fit for purpose – between the old ways and what is emerging in the sharp end of scientific inquiry – as an articulation of our shared sense of relationship with reality.

There’s plenty of inquiry and reflection we can do.

BMG 27.1.22

I am parked at Black Mother Gully around 7.30am. A wash of cloud softens the sky, leaving colours muted. Bird call is dominated by magpies. 

I am still thinking gods and how our ancestors sensed great Thous in which they were able to discriminate distinct characters. Maybe story-telling made this necessary as the morality of conduct essential to survival made discerning and talking/singing about distinct characters necessary. 

But equally, a landscape is full of character. Full of lives. We stop at assigning livingness to rocks and wind and water. Our ancestors did not. We discern some movement because of life and other because of mechanism. Our ancestors did not. 

Such a distinction is important to us. But, if we pause with sufficiently open minds, it is hard to understand why. 

Iain McGilchrist, in his The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, thinks in terms of right and left brain. He sees our culture as addicted to abstract categories – left brain dominant. McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, not a new ager. If you are unfamiliar with sensible left/right brain ideas, here’s a quick update.

Our ancestors created categories too – sacred, good to eat, useful – a different consciousness of utility and care. They did not need to think living or not. They had no need of that category. 

I am not sure why we have that need. However, our moral make up is relational and categories of being or thing define relationships for us. We create a subject/object duality and thereby define how we may act.  Being and thing have distinct moral codes assigned to them. 

We needed to be less moral toward things, and we are thus relieved of a burden of relational interaction. 

As usual, we assume this duality is true and good, and an absolute reflection of how things are. But, this is a dogma that we believe serves us well, rather than a truth discerned. It is a dogma that is self-creating. We believe that concrete knowledge is a good of itself – and the fact that this is potentially never-ending is a marvel to be explored. 

Awareness of the nature of things, in a way that is not constrained by any relational or moral sense, yields knowing that is not associated with any value beyond the knowing itself. 

It does not serve our needs, as we define them, to speak of gods, because to do so casts a far greater relational net over what we can see and know. Or so we think. 

The values of utility are defined by our moral or relational sense. These define our needs. At core, survival has a particular set of values – the existential necessities of being in the world.  But the sacred and the moral have always constrained and shaped the boundaries of utility. They have been part of the necessities of being in the world for our ancestors – and now we imagine them as less and less essential.

The American anthropologist, Robert Redfield, writing in 1953, observed what he called the moral order and the technical order, noting that “The coming of civilizations disturbed, probably forever, the primordial relation between the tendencies.”(the moral and technical). Anthropology of the 1950s is unfashionable these days because of the language used – also because it was more sympathetic to the spiritual than later the theistic and materialistic interpretation of the field. Redfield’s book, The Primitive World and its Transformations, can be found online as a PDF. I prefer a lot of pre-1960s works. I am content to trade off language for insight and sensitivity to spirit.

The one God of our culture’s dominant religion emerged from the ecology of tribal spirits – inflated into being a cosmic progenitor. This was a harmless conceit at first. We like to think ours is the best. And in times of adversity that conceit can be a vital energiser and focus of will. To be chosen of the greatest is a comfort. It is a form of collective self-justification. 

We know in ourselves when egocentric self-justification becomes a toxic conceit – because we see it in others. Australians have had a tradition of celebrating mateship as if it were a unique trait not found in the males of other nations. It’s a conceit that seems harmless enough. But we look like fools if we broadcast it to others as if it were objectively unique and true.

As a culture we are still reacting to this conception of the divine. There is an absurdity to it that we seem to sense intuitively, and cling to – if we lack the confidence and imagination to move on. But in moving on we are now in a wilderness with no tracks and few reliable guides.

Later – back home

I have been listening to Don Watson’s remarkable book The Bush. Watson is a wonderful writer, and an historian. This book should be read/listened to by anyone who considers themselves an Australian. It tells the catastrophic tale of the white man coming to Australia with his European sentiments, beliefs, and ignorance. What we gently call ‘settlement’ was more an assault fueled by arrogance, ignorance and brutal desire. This not an account of evil, but of evil consequences wrought by innocent brutality.

The sobering truth of the European mentality is that it was awful in the consequences of its adventures beyond its domain – in Africa, in the Americas, as well as Australia.

Watson is on no moral rampage. He documents the history of what we call ‘the bush’ from settlement to now. He passes no judgements. The people he describes are ‘good people’ – but they handle their new home roughly.  What he has written is perhaps the most concise examination of the impact of the European Christian/Materialist mentality upon a landscape and the lives that dwell therein. 

I can think of no more telling account of the perils of that mindset – the left brain dominance that McGilchrist writes so compellingly about.